The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
Gipe, Mullinax, Stanley, & Turpin 19
passionate enough to cross that hurdle? The individual, familial, and community devastation accompanying the rise of Oxycontin abuse was at the heart of that mobilization. For many, this issue was quickly becoming stigmatized by the national media as “hillbilly heroin,” and it signified an underlying loss of hope among Harlan County residents in reaction to persistent economic, political, and social problems in the area. In contrast to what Social Movement Studies typically look at—direct action tactics of protests, marching, writing letters, sitting-in on places, throwing blood on nuclear weapons—the response of the coalition was to raise funds to support the collective creation of art and the production of community-based research. This research would in turn take the form of the gathering of oral histories and the implementation of a listening project that documented residents’ stories as well as their assessments of the community’s strengths and challenges to the community’s strengths, as they saw them. And so in thinking about how to characterize the evolution of Higher Ground, it is helpful to draw on the drama professor Jan Cohen-Cruz’s work on community based performance; and in a book she wrote, Local Acts: Community Performance in the United States (2005)—which I think Anita also draws on—she describes “community based art” as “a field in which artists, collaborating with people whose lives directly inform the subject matter, express collective meaning” (1). In this work, she also describes the convergence of these community-based artists and their groups into a grassroots social movement with practices that are “situated somewhere between art and ritual” ( Local 81). And in order to explain how community members engage in the production of art, she draws on an anthropologist by the name of John MacAloon, who explained the ritual element of “cultural performance” as “‘occasions in which as a culture or society we reflect upon and define ourselves, we dramatize our collective myths and history, [and] present ourselves with alternatives’” (qtd. in Local 84). Cohen-Cruz goes on to say that those alternatives are put out there not to guide the audience where to take them, but rather for critical reflection on those alternatives. And I definitely see Higher Ground working through this process. The work also is influenced by author Arlene Goldbard’s New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development (2006). She describes this work as a new form of hybridity or a hybrid of community cultural development in which the activities and impulses that I see in Higher Ground is also reflected.
Therefore, Higher Ground could easily be described as a combination of community development, community organizing, and play-space education, as well as a more radical form of cultural politics with an emancipatory transforming focus or impulse. I think this is especially important in an era which can be described as neo-liberalist, where the state has been increasingly withdrawing from the provision of social services, so you get this blending of aspects. Higher Ground is alternately and simultaneously a combination of these deliberate practices. But it is this cultural resistance that I want to underscore here for a few minutes before I move on to questions and challenges. In contrast to past ways of conceiving social movements, which focused on groups who were engaging in efforts to address institutions such as the state, mainly to change the state through revolution or to change policies of the state, Higher Ground and other movements that draw on cultural resistance are less about direct action and contentious politics or forming the identities of participants, as a focus on buttressing Appalachian identity can lead to both romanticism and insularity. It’s not that identity is not important or that Appalachian identity specifically is not important. In fact, in my interviews, I found that to be very important for the participants; but one of the first things, one of the first questions I had for Robert Gipe was about Appalachian identity, and he quickly disabused me of that line of questioning. He said that’s not really what we’re about; it’s about being a resident of a place which became part of the title of my dissertation research, actually. This shift away from Appalachian identity is especially important in coal-dependent communities in eastern Kentucky, with predominantly extractive economies where social divisions such as race, class, gender, religion, politics, and sexuality tend to run deep. In place of these direct-action, confrontational focuses or identity or identitive focuses, these movements focus on community capacity for building and nourishing hope through active processes: a critical reflection on what is and what might be. They are centered on place and building a safe, aware learning community attuned to diversity, not that there aren’t problems, but that it’s a different kind of focus. Interestingly, Social Movement Studies have little to say about that, and it actually became a kind of difficult thing for me because I wanted this focus to be there, and I just kept finding that it wasn’t. I think that this is a really important, but it is not necessarily looked at, reflected upon, and analyzed form of social movement activity. I’m going to move onto these questions in regards to Higher Ground and that the work of cultural resistance really
Made with FlippingBook flipbook maker